Song of the Day #876: ‘The Last Polka’ – Ben Folds Five

The penultimate track of Ben Folds Five is a tour de force that serves as a climax for the whole album. ‘The Last Polka’ certainly ranks among the best songs the band ever recorded.

It’s a song about the collapse of a relationship — a marriage I’m guessing — and the passive aggressive ways the man and woman ignore what’s staring them right in the face.

The atmosphere here is summed up by the wife’s biting words in the opening verse: “If he really loved me, I wouldn’t have to be so mean.”

For his part, the husband retreats to the souvenirs of his youth (perhaps he’s the man longing to live in the video from yesterday’s song).

In the bridge, Folds as narrator delivers a little nugget of wisdom that’s obviously too late to help this pair: “The cruelest lies are often told without a word; the kindest truths are often spoken, never heard.”

In the last two verses, the tension bubbles up to the top and the couple explodes at each other. I love that the music explodes right along with them, with Folds banging on his piano with primal rage.

I have a theory that as you repeatedly listen to an album you love, it grows in your estimation step by step until it reaches a plateau and then starts to diminish a bit. The downward slope isn’t as steep as the upward slope… it isn’t really much of a slope at all. It’s just a leveling off to a point of comfortable and happy acceptance.

I suppose this curve could be applied to romantic relationships as well, with the giddiness of falling in love settling into the comfort of longtime commitment.

But back to albums. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to fully experience the peak of that curve, the moment when the album affects you like it never has before and never will again. Usually we forget that moment among the many other things we’re doing in our lives. But sometimes it sticks with you.

In the case of Ben Folds Five, my peak experience came during a workday when for some reason I had an occasion to drive to South Beach and run an errand. I played this album in my car on the way. I don’t know how long I’d had it at that point… probably more than a couple of weeks but fewer than a couple of months. I knew it by heart by then but it still felt new.

I remember listening to this song, driving down Washington Avenue, and banging my fist against the steering wheel in time with Folds’ percussive piano playing. I felt like the music was not just around me but inside me. That’s one of the best memories I have of physically listening to music, beating out even live concert experiences.

Moments like that are why I listen to music.

Well, she crept back in the house
At half past three
Shook her head to see him
Snoring in his sleep
“If he really loved me,”
She said,
“I wouldn’t have to be so mean.”

He’s a heap of junk that
Pours from his top drawer
He sometimes likes to spread it
Out around the floor
It’s evidence of what he was like
He likes to remember when

CHORUS
Sha-la-la sha-la-la sha-la-la
The end is growing near
And we’re treading water now
And holding back our tears
And the day is rising
We’re sinking, sha-la-la-la-la

In a minute it will all be coming down
And they know it now
But no one makes a sound
It’s such a shame to
Ruin this bright, lazy sunny day

CHORUS

My, my…
The cruelest lies are often told
Without a word
My, my…
The kindest truths are often spoken,
Never heard

She said,
“You’ve been pushing me
Like I was a sore tooth
You can’t respect me
‘Cause I’ve done so much for you.”

He said, “well, I hate that
It’s come to this, but baby,
I was doing fine
How do you think that I
survived the other twenty-five before you?”

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8 thoughts on “Song of the Day #876: ‘The Last Polka’ – Ben Folds Five

  1. Amy says:

    I know what you mean about “that moment,” though I can’t so vividly call to mind specific details the way you can. For me, the moments usually occur in the car, too, though more of them took place in Broward dorm, where I listened to so many of the albums that went on to make a lasting impression (Fables of the Reconstruction is one that immediately comes to mind.)

    Recently I had such a moment listening to the new Ben Folds album. The one I most vividly remember, however, is watching Elvis Costello perform “Spooky Girlfriend” in concert. Now THAT was a moment. 🙂

    As for today’s song, I don’t immediately “get” its greatness, but I can see why you appreciate it so much. I do wonder how serious this relationship was. If we’re to take seriously (and I have no idea if we are) the last line of the song, that she is just #26, then I read/listen to the whole thing as more of a volatile break-up to a short-lived love affair. That’s my interpretation having listened (carefully) just this once.

  2. Dana says:

    Actually, I think Amy’s interpretation may be right that this is the end of a relationship, but not a marriage.

    As for that euphoric musical experience you describe, I know that feeling and have had it on a handful of occasions. One that comes to mind is driving from Ocala to Gainesville back in college in my Nissan 200SX, which I still argue had the best stereo of any car I have ever owned. I believe I was not alone in the car, although, to be honest, the music took such center stage that all else in the world faded away. The album was Graceland–the song “Homeless.” I turned the volume up to an absurdly high level, but there was zero distortion–just the incredible vocals and clicks and harmonies coming from those speakers. In that moment, I felt much like Saliere did in Amadeus when he, recalling a Mozart piece in his mind, expressed that he could hear the “voice of God” at work.

    I have had similar experiences with other great songs from great albums–“Vienna” from The Stranger, “Allentown” from Nylon Curtain, “New Lace Sleeves” from Trust, “Brilliant Mistake” from King of America, “Sledgehammer” from So, “One More Arrow” from Too Low From Zero, “Shipbuilding” from Punch the Clock. In each case, I can remember, though sometimes only vaguely, where I was when I turned up the volume, shut out the world and was transformed by great music. It is, to be sure, one of the most wonderful experiences of the human condition.

  3. Clay says:

    I’m pretty sure the “other 25 before you” refers to years and not other women. I lean toward marriage in part because Folds himself had been married and divorced at a young age.

  4. Clay says:

    And Dana, I remember that Nissan and its killer sound system very well, including how good ‘Homeless’ sounded in it.

  5. Amy says:

    How can “the other twenty-five before you” refer to years when years were never mentioned. “Other” than “you,” no?

    Not to mention that it doesn’t make a lot of sense chronologically if he is referring to years. How old is he now (at the time of the song)? 30? 34? How long were they married? A year? Five? So he’s saying that he “survived” from 1 – 25, then got married at 26, was married for a year or two or eight, and is now separating, and declaring that he was just frine for those first 25 years before he got married? Nah, I don’t buy it.

    The song makes much more sense to me if he’s talking about women. Not to mention that it’s exactly the sort of thing an angry lover would say (or, at the very least, think) as he’s heading out the door.

  6. Clay says:

    Funny, I found a lyrics site where people are having the same debate — years vs. wives/girlfriends.

    I definitely think it refers to years. He’s saying, essentially, “You think I can’t live without you… well, I managed to survive for 25 years before we met.” The idea of “surviving” 25 other women doesn’t make much sense.

  7. Clay says:

    I asked Alex her interpretation (giving no hints as to my own) and she said it’s definitely years. Dana… how do you interpret it?

  8. Dana says:

    i actually lean toward thinking he is referring to years. He was probably just under 30 when this album came out, but probably wrote the song closer to when he was 25.

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